Advocating the Devil V
A canvas of possibility
If we can’t be sure that we know the ultimate truth, what might we assume about the nature of reality?
Does it have a purpose? Did it all come from nothing? Was it all by chance?
You can pick the it. It could be the tree in the forest. It could be the ear you use to hear it fall. It could be you, or your experiences. It could be everything that we call the universe or reality itself.
In trying to search for where our knowledge runs out, where it begins and ends in intuitive leaps of faith, I’ve become skeptical of the assumptions underlying some of our modern belief systems. I have been pursuing my interest in uncovering and revealing the beliefs that I can justify through my own experience and reasoning— it remains to be seen how that journey might impact your own. One’s philosophy is a look into their own psyche, so the best I can do is work out my own struggles in a public forum, to see what might emerge.
In the previous chapter, we developed that what I can know is only that which continues to produce expected results thus far in my life, outside of that, I act on implicit beliefs I hold about how the world works. Our interpretive structure — the ‘mapmaking’ personality within— perceives patterns and interprets them in ways that seem to be meaningful. To discuss a theory of being (an ontology) is to inquire into the nature of these perceived patterns and try to form a belief about what is true of their existence, including that of our own being. Even dipping my toe in such an insurmountable task can quickly become foolish, and I will no doubt venture into the domain of speculation, although I will attempt to appeal to reason in so far as I find it possible.
We began discussing the ontology of the physicalists, who believe the modern ‘map’ that has emerged through our scientific progress suggests that there isn’t real meaning to any of it. This is particularly true with those in the ‘new atheist’ camp or in the church of scientism(most wouldn’t claim membership). If their theories are pieced together, their worldview unfolds along these lines:
The universe is made of some stuff, let’s call it matter. This stuff is purely physical (materialism), governed by natural laws that determine the motion and properties of the smallest particles (reductionism). The stuff and its laws emerged by chance (randomness), from seeming nothingness (Big Bang), which began a causal chain that runs right through to this instant (determinism). The universe has been expanding indefinitely from this ‘point’ (in spacetime), increasing in disorder (entropy) as its energy spreads out further into the nothingness. Eventually, all of the energy will burn out in the increasing expanse, leaving the cold dark void in its wake (Heat Death of the Universe).
Hopefully I can be forgiven for using my broad brush, as many hold variations along the spectrums of these views and more differentiated claims could be made, although they would lack the simple elegance of the above. However, there should be no doubt that this simplification gives a taste for the perspective of the prickliest physicalists. Many cleverly read between the lines of what this worldview implies about human beings and life itself. One might say:
All forms emerge from simple mechanisms, that are blind and undirected. The smallest particles, which make-up every form, have bounced off each other like billiard balls, set in motion from the singularity in the beginning (Big Bang again). Over time, relationships between these parts lead to the emergence of more complex systems. Far after this process started, living beings emerged from non-living matter, a difference of many degrees and not of kind. Living things evolve by a process of random mutation and arbitrary fitness to the natural world (evolution by natural selection). Organisms are but survival machines, programmed by their replicators (genes for most of history, memes as of recently for humans) to live long enough to propagate their genetic information to their kin. As one amongst these many organisms, humans too are insignificant survival machines, devoid of agency (free will) and purpose — relegating dreams and religious beliefs to wish-fulfillment at best and harmfully delusional at worst.
What a wonderful world we have found ourselves in, and more questions might arise here:
Are we pattern searching creatures by sheer happenstance, who write meaning into randomness so that we can pointlessly continue to survive, reproduce and feel a sense of worth?
Do our experiences, intuitions and feeling of agency tell us something deeper about the universe, or is the meaning illusory?
Is reality a place of objects, or a place for acting in?
You can certainly view the basis of reality as physical matter —made of purely inert substances and their interactions; however, our pragmatic being finds us thrown into a reality which seems to reveals itself as a place of what matters (I am adopting Peterson’s phrasing again). Reality might be constituted by a spacetime of mere objects, or as that which objects to your current model of it, which is necessarily always incomplete and can’t be equated with the real. I believe wisdom comes through humbleness in the face of this observation.
We must remember the postmodern critique of interpretations and apply it explicitly to the scientific method: our experimental observations don’t declare to us what is real, without requiring an interpretation of the results. The current set of scientific beliefs are always nested inside a “paradigm” — which is constructed by the universal scientific achievements that “for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners”— as the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn is famous for detailing. He was a neo-pragmatist and argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that paradigms are languages for representing reality, and that “scientific progress” occurs through paradigm shifts that are both “destructive as well as constructive”. A paradigm persists as long as the tools it supplies continue to prove capable of solving the problems it recognizes, which constitutes the puzzle-solving process of normal science. However, when anomalies manifest that lead to discoveries or new theories, a crisis emerges in which some previously standard beliefs must be burned off and old ones are seen under a new light. Thus, it’s a misnomer to believe progress is made through confirming the current paradigm, as the unsolved questions point in the direction of what is left out of our current map, which is necessarily true as long as we agree that there are unsolved questions.
The new paradigm that emerges is more integrative, and a necessary retooling, allowing scientists to “account for a wider range of natural phenomena or to account with greater precision for some of those previously known”. Kuhn believes that different paradigms posit different things to exist in the world and are therefore incommensurable with each other. I agree and align with his fallibilism, in thinking that all scientific paradigms (e.g. classical Newtonian mechanics, Einsteinian relativity, quantum physics) should be assumed false when looked at in the whole, but good for a time to give scientists new ideas to play around with (making them pragmatic truths as well). Another way of viewing this is that paradigms describe new language games, which allow us to describe the world in new ways that wouldn’t have been possible without the revolution. For Kuhn, ‘electrons’ and other particles exist just so much as they are useful in providing us with novel experiments that might allow us to uncover more about the paradigm we have adopted. Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise to a true scientist, as science is often in the business of disproving other science.
The term paradigm has been somewhat hijacked, although I see why it is useful in a context broader than science. The culture we exist in is a framework — similar to the individual frame of reference we have been detailing in previous chapters — in that it simplifies the world for its members through a set of customs, traditions and laws. Both cultural and individual frames of references are similar to paradigms in this sense. They constrain our perspective through its own lens, while being immensely useful to organize us towards common goals — allowing us to collaborate, compete and coexist under a shared game. Paradigms provide not only a map “but also with some of the directions essential for map-making”, determining the acceptable criteria of both legitimate problems and solutions. Kuhn similarly suspected that “something like a paradigm is prerequisite to perception itself”, as what we see is dependent both upon what we look at and what we bring to the table to look with (the paradigm), a theme we have been developing throughout.
Our cultural paradigm is a mutual belief system, which shapes and underlies the ways in which we act, although the way in which we act shapes it right back. That which lies outside our known culture is necessarily that of nature, the very thing we seek to understand, while always existing outside of our grasp. We graft our cultures on top of nature in order lay out a paradigm in which we believe and ‘know’ we can act in the world through. This constitutes the worldview of an age, which is always an evolved amalgam of those which came prior, trying to conserve and integrate that which still holds legs.
To be clear, I believe there is a lot of deeply true observations underlying the physicalist perspective and I have an immense respect and interest in science. When we are employing the scientific method properly, it is undoubtedly the most powerful tool we have to model and manipulate the world. Its tenants suggest that all theories are merely probabilistic and that we shouldn’t multiply assumptions beyond necessity, both of which I subscribe to, without believing that they lead us to take the physicalist paradigm as final.
I take issue with a faith in the ‘objective’ world being purely physical, while saying the ‘phenomenal’ (subjective, felt, intuited) world is merely a byproduct and illusion, as I don’t see why that must be presupposed. You could seemingly just as easily justify a belief in the one being a derivative of the other, or that their relationship is reverberative and necessary. With this in mind, it’s time to question some of the assumptions underlying the physicalist paradigm as defined above. This paradigm is an immensely influential force in our current cultural outlook, especially in the West (and in an increasing degree all over the world) and its strange relationship with the world’s religious faiths on the one hand, and postmodern views on the other, constitute the major ideological conflicts of our age.
The physicalists are right to think that things come and go like dust in the wind, as it is quite believable that eventually the final star will burn out and leave the universe as a cold, dark expanse. But of course, like all other conditional states, this ending leaves in its wake the potential for another beginning, the opportunity for a light to illuminate and reveal that darkness even exists.
If something (i.e. it or everything) came from ‘nothing’, then was what existed before ever really ‘nothing’, or was it potential — for something (or everything)?
That is a more precise term, as potential is nothing — a void — with the implication of something(s) being possible to emerge. Further, if something came from nothing, then there’s no reason to believe it couldn’t again. The French philosopher Henri Bergson recognized this strangeness of there being something rather than nothing, stating in his underrated book, Creative Evolution, that:
“Existence appears to me like a conquest over nought. I say to myself that there might be, that indeed there ought to be, nothing, and I then wonder that there is something. Or I represent all reality extended on nothing as on a carpet: at first was nothing, and being has come by superaddition to it. Or, yet again, if something has always existed, nothing must always have served as its substratum or receptacle, and is therefore eternally prior. A glass may have always been full, but the liquid it contains nevertheless fills a void. In the same way, being may have always been there, but the nought which is filled, and, as it were, stopped up by it, pre-exists for it none the less, if the idea that the full is an embroidery on the canvas of the the void, that being is superimposed on nothing, and that in the idea of ‘nothing’ there is less than in that of ‘something’. Hence all the mystery.”
It seems most reasonable to believe that reality is either infinitely going through cycles of creation and destruction, or that their was a miracle at the ultimate beginning, in which merely untapped potential manifested into something actual — creating space, time, matter, motion, and causation. With some poetic license, the latter can be likened to Aristotle’s ‘unmoved mover’ and the arguments for God that he inspired in the great Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas of the Middle Ages. The former is similar to the endless cycle of life, death and reincarnation of Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, with the concept of samsara. I don’t think we have to settle on an either/or view of these options either, but we will hold off going down that rabbit hole until later.
The Big Bang theory of the physicalists can purport to be an alternative to these options, if one assumes the ‘bang’ to be blind and random, while leaving open the possibility of a ‘Big Crunch’ at the end of this universe’s time, which will bring it all back together and lay the groundwork for another bang. However, I don’t see how this theory should necessitate a physicalist universe, and it has been pointed out by many that it still implies a miracle leading to the existence of something over nothing, whether or not it culminates in a crunch. The biologist Rupert Sheldrake points out in Science Set Free how it isn’t even novel, as it echoes many archaic creation stories, “like the Orphic creation myth of the Cosmic Egg in ancient Greece, or the Indian myth of Hiranyagarbha, the primal Golden Egg”. He goes on, “in all these myths the egg is both a primal unity and a primal polarity, since an egg is a unity composed of two parts, the yolk and the white, an apt symbol of the emergence of ‘many’ from ‘one’ ”.
Whether it comes in waves or is infinite — both seem to imply a reality of the same essence. There was emptiness and then form — or form and then implied emptiness — or both form and emptiness existing infinitely. This is a nondual way of thinking, everything is conditional and limited, but in the end an expression of the infinite — a part of, spawning from, and co-creating it. These ideas seem to paint the universe as a canvas of possibility — with potential as the ground of all things. The acorn is potentially the tree, potentially paper, potentially a table, never quite ultimately understood by its current physical form. We also look at each other as potential, believing that we evolve over time and are not merely the sum of the parts that make up our current body. You aren’t a static being, and neither is any thing or form. The process that creates and transforms is what remains consistent amongst its manifestations and brings actuality forth from formless potential — the question remains whether this process is random and undirected, or purposeful and willed — which will be the focus of the following chapter.
We haven’t disproved the beliefs of the physicalists, although we have hopefully highlighted how much that worldview depends on faith in an assumption: in that what we can’t explain (scientifically or otherwise), is resolvable in a mechanistic paradigm that pits the universe as something like a blind machine that ‘happened’ to emerge. These types of thinkers embody the purest example of the prickly, left hemisphere perspective we introduced in chapter II, believing in the self-consistency of the current physical paradigm, with an implicit bet that new insights will not radically overturn or introduce new concepts to the framework they use to understand the world. A belief like this is exclusionary to the possibility that another system of ideas could live along side the mechanistic or encapsulate it, as William James, the “Father of American psychology” and co-founder of philosophical pragmatism, proposes in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
I believe that the claims of the sectarian scientist are, to say the least, premature. The experiences which we have been studying…plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for. What, in the end, are all our verifications but experiences that agree with more or less isolated systems of ideas (conceptual systems) that our minds have framed? But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true?
Modern discoveries in fields like computation and quantum physics have pushed many physicalists to begin reframing their paradigm, having to accept that reality could be composed of many actuals, as suggested in theories that pit our universe as one of many probable simulations or one of an infinite number of multiverses, although both of these leave open why there is anything rather than nothing and what the limitations of that ‘anything’ are.
The new atheists, like the biologist Richard Dawkins, believe that asking ‘why’ is a silly question in regards to ultimate ontological truths, as just because you can ask a question, doesn’t mean it deserves an answer. He would go on to say that since nature can be described without appealing to ‘whys’ and ‘purposes’, you can presuppose that you have to make unjustified assumptions to believe there are any. Thus, the only worthwhile questions are of the scientific kind — that which strips subjective bias and can be tested by experimentation to reveal how something really works, in an objectively verifiable sense. However, even this statement holds an implicit assumption about reality, in believing that it is likely made up of only that which is physically testable by a species of talking primate — a pretty arrogant belief if you ask this primate. If you strip the qualities and subjectivity from reality, there should be no surprise that all you find is pure physicality, although that doesn’t prove it is wise to limit our view in this way and believe that only that pole is ‘real’.
Consider this thought-experiment that should get at the heart of our issue, similar to one of Alan Watts:
Does a drama merely emerge from a stage or does the stage exist for the drama’s emergence?
It is true that the drama is both the stage and the play taking place within it, although, the drama exists for the play and not for the stage. You can’t separate the play from the stage, just as you can’t separate a game from the field it is played on. Additionally, you can’t describe the entire drama by a mere description of the objects that constitute its stage, as there is a narrative that is fundamental to its existence. This is how it can be a nondual reality, with both aspects of the whole capturing an asymmetric domain of the truth.
The setting up of the stage certainly pre-dates the acting out of the drama, and can concern purely physical objects, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the stage causes the occurrences of the drama. Even if its set-up is done far earlier (relatively) than the drama’s ‘beginning’, and even if the set-up is ‘longer’ than the play, the drama is still the purpose of the ‘happening’ (it). It wouldn’t be a drama if the stage wasn’t a derivative of it, and if it wasn’t there for something ‘to be’. Thus, we can draw entirely different views on the same reality, depending on if you believe there is a why for its emergence.
Take from that what you will.
In the most general terms, the stage that reality unfolds in seems to be most simply described as constrained potential — a nonduality between chaos and order. The astrophysicist Carl Sagan even pointed out that the word “cosmos is a Greek word for the order of the world”, the interconnectedness of all things, seen as polarized to the chaos underlying it. Chaos is the potentiality and birthplace of all forms, as well as the place where their order dissolves into. Order describes the patterns that emerge from chaotic matter throughout time, which give a degree of predictability and regularity to the universe, which is observable in its ‘natural laws’ and forms. The process that transforms them is what unfolds over time, painting reality onto the canvas of possibility. This view subsumes the concept of physicality within it — without leaving out the ‘immaterial’ world of experiences, ideas and forms.
Order is often symbolized by culture, which emerges through our interaction with nature — the mysterious chaos from which we are birthed and destroyed. Interestingly, our cerebral hemispheres seem to be literally adapted to these domains, as they can be likened to the known and unknown — the two paradoxical aspects of our being we attend to simultaneously at all times, which we have been exploring from various angles. The known and unknown are relative terms that presuppose and suggest there to be something that can know and in turn be in-formed by what it encounters. This ‘knower’ would be that which can engage with the unknown, to create and sustain a known domain, through struggling with how to walk a proper (true) path instead of one of misdirection (sin).
I am getting a bit ahead of myself, but to distinguish themselves from this view, the physicalists must answer some questions:
Sure the material world is a way in which reality’s potential is constrained, but is it really justified to assume that mechanisms of blind physicality exhausts what is real?
Is our mind merely a meaningless bi-product of our body?
Are qualities and meanings mere illusion?
How can consciousness or experience be material?
How can a choice or idea exist in a physical world?
Is there an ‘I’ that can know and act?
In the following chapter, we will get into the devil in the details of these problems, which are some of the most existential questions that plague humankind …